AUSTIN, Texas — We're well into the second half of this challenging school year and there's no doubt many students are struggling in new learning environments.
The KVUE Defenders discovered every major school district in Central Texas reports an increase in the number of middle and high school students failing at least one class at the halfway point in the school year.
This story is more than just numbers; it's about the impact the pandemic has had on education and what families are seeing and doing as a result.
The challenges are many – spotty internet service, the struggle to keep kids focused and engaged. Teachers, administrators and parents working overtime to keep kids learning.
Virtual learning difficulties
The struggles of school that began with the pandemic last spring still linger.
"Learning virtually was really hard for me," said 12-year-old Austin Chamblee.
The Chamblees lived it.
"It really wasn't a good experience," said Eric Chamblee, Austin’s dad.
"It was rough. It was rough for my kids. It was rough for my wife and I, knowing they may get on the computer for maybe at max an hour,” said Eric Chamblee.
So they packed up to move schools in the middle of a pandemic.
A move to Texas made learning and making friends even more difficult for 13-year-old Reese McCracken.
"It was kind of hard since it was such a big school, and with COVID, it was hard for me to make friends," said McCracken.
Virtual learning made that even tougher.
"When I was online, my grades weren't as good. It was hard for me to learn on Zoom. The teachers really do try a lot, but you're facing a screen for seven hours a day and you can't concentrate," said McCracken.
These are problems plaguing schools across the country and here in Central Texas.
Increase in failures
The KVUE Defenders reviewed data from local school districts showing the numbers of students with failing grades.
Across the 15 districts we reviewed, there is a 58% overall average increase in the number of high school and middle school students (combined) failing at least one class compared to the halfway point last school year.
High school student failures
Overall, 29% of high school students in the 15 largest Central Texas school districts are failing at least one class halfway through the current school year. That's up from 22% at the halfway point last year. At some individual districts, it's much worse.
Forty-eight percent of high school students in Bastrop ISD are failing at least one class halfway through the school year, followed by 44% of high school students in Hays CISD, 43% in Pflugerville ISD, 38% of high school students in Hutto ISD and 33% of high school students in Austin ISD.
Middle school student failures
Overall, 24% of middle school students in these 15 districts are failing at least one class halfway through the current school year. That's up from 12% at the halfway point last year. But again, at some individual districts, it's much worse.
Forty percent of middle school students in Bastrop ISD are failing at least one class halfway through the school year, followed by 35% in Manor ISD, 34% in Georgetown ISD and Pflugerville ISD, 31% in Austin ISD and 30% in Hays CISD schools.
We didn't include elementary schools in our analysis because many school districts track grades at that level differently.
"We're asking a lot of kids that haven't learned time management and they haven't matured to that level, so really self-directed, self-paced learning. And that's why they're in class, because the teacher can walk around and check for understanding. They can check for progress. And we found that we've had more of a problem at the secondary level in the middle school and high schools than we have at the elementary level,” said Hays CISD Superintendent Eric Wright.
Counties that lacked devices and internet have disadvantage
Hays CISD saw one of the biggest increases in the number of middle and high school students failing at least one class – going from 2,089 students last school year to 4,184 this school year, a 224% increase.
Hays County has a bigger population of students that lack access to technology and the internet. The district has been working to provide tablets and hot spots to students who don't have them.
"That was last March when this started, and I guess it was last month when we finally got all our devices in. And so we had gaps where we didn't have everybody covered," said Wright.
"In Eanes, we had a little bit of an advantage. We were already one-to-one with devices before this happened. Our teachers have been trained on those devices and have been using them in classes, whereas a lot of school districts didn't have that," said Dr. Tom Leonard, Eanes ISD superintendent.
Eanes ISD reported the lowest overall numbers of failing grades, but still saw an increase. Its number of students failing doubled, rising from 35 to 76 in the middle schools and 83 to 180 at the high school.
“We found in-person is identical, so it's really the kids who are remote we're seeing the most in our district in that domain,” said Dr. Leonard.
In Texas parents still have the choice to send their kids to school or keep them learning at home. Most school districts in Central Texas have more than half of their students back in class.
"It may take a little while to take the kids who slipped behind and catch them back up, but compared to some of the schools across the country that are still not open in-person, we are miles ahead. That's because of the dedication of our teachers and our staff. Everyone is working hard to make this work," said Dr. Leonard.
"I'm really, really concerned about our children and their future and how far behind they potentially are," said Eric Chamblee.
The challenges are real.
"Maybe a few aren't passing as much, but we're going to get there. We're going to catch them up. This is not going to be a wall in their lives; it's going to be a speed bump and we're going to get past this," said Dr. Leonard.
“I guess the message I want to give to kids is you're not a failure. This process may not be working for you, but if you'll be persistent and persevere, we will find a way to get you caught up,” said Wright.
Round Rock ISD, where Eric Chamblee's children attended, is the second-largest school district in Central Texas. It had a 99% increase in the number of middle and high school students who failed at least one class (2,903 to 5,764).
Eric Chamblee saw his 12-year-old son, Austin, struggling at his Round Rock school and decided he needed a change. They enrolled him at Round Rock Christian Academy.
"He's gone from making some Bs, Cs and even Ds in public school to now shockingly making As and Bs, and you can see him come home and work," said Chamblee.
A change of schools helped seventh-grader Reese McCracken too. Her family took her out of her Dripping Springs school and enrolled her in St. Gabriel's Catholic School.
"I've been way happier. I've learned way more and my grades are better," she said.
Change is hard, but if schools and families have proven anything this year, it's that they can adapt. That may be the real goal this school year.
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